A Lenten Brunch Special: March 21, 2020
Note from CM: We have a special guest speaker for our weekly brunch today. My good friend and former iMonk partner Jeff Dunn is here with a message most appropriate for Lent. And like all of Jeff’s writing, it arises from his life. He has reached a critical point in his journey, and I’ve asked him to share it with you. I know you’ll appreciate his words and his spirit, and that this community will rally around Jeff and his family at this time.
Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for your transparency. We love you.
Goodbye Seems To Be The Hardest Word
By Jeff Dunn
The men in my family have always had trouble saying goodbye. My grandpa’s eyes would well up with tears when we would leave to return to our home—just 12 miles up the road. My dad and I do great on a phone call with each other, until that awkward time when it’s time to end the conversation. I almost imagine us being like teenage crushes. “You hang up first.” “No, you hang up first.” When our oldest daughter left to go to college for the first time, it about tore me up to say goodbye. And she was only going four miles away. Even our son, VERY much the millennial, doesn’t like saying goodbye. When he stops over for a visit, he’ll just get up and walk out the door without even a “See ya later.” There’s something about saying “goodbye” we Dunns just haven’t grasped yet.
Now I’m struggling to say goodbye to things that have been a part of my 60-plus years on earth. Goodbye to travel. Goodbye to going to Tulsa Drillers baseball games (if and when they get started again). Goodbye to going to Gardner’s, my favorite used bookstore.
I’m also learning to say goodbye to simpler things, like getting up from my chair unassisted, going to the grocery on my own, writing with a pen. Yesterday I said goodbye to my favorite coffee mug—handcrafted by a master artist here in Tulsa. It has become too heavy for me to hold.
I received my diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, last summer. That diagnosis—or, rather, deathnosis, as ALS is always fatal—put me on my farewell tour. And what a tour it has been! I’ve longed for this for so very long. No, I haven’t desired a fatal illness, and I wasn’t wanting to say goodbye to the many people, experiences and things I’ve enjoyed all of my life. But I have longed to say goodbye to the false self, the self constantly in need of approval and acceptance, the self that talked a good game about the love of God but didn’t believe he loved me or even knew I existed. All it took was ALS to help me to stop begging for attention from others and really, truly begin to know my ever-loving, merciful, kind and generous Father.
It’s funny how receiving a death sentence has freed me to live. Here’s what I mean. I had longed to go to New Mexico for a number of years. It was a longing in my spirit that I couldn’t explain. I just knew I had to go. And even though I made attempts to scrounge up the money and free some time for the venture, I always came to the conclusion we couldn’t afford it. New Mexico became a dream that most likely would never come true.
Then, right after the doctor confirmed the symptoms I had experienced for more than a year were caused by Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Motor Neuron Disease if you’re British, Charcot’s Disease in France), I decided I was going to New Mexico no matter what, and I wasn’t going to wait around to go. I didn’t know how fast the disease would progress to the point where I couldn’t travel.
My spiritual director asked me if I was afraid to die. “No,” I told him. “Why should I be afraid to die?
“But I am afraid to not live.”
So, in September my good friend Mike Lacer and I set off for the Land of Enchantment, neither of us knowing just why we were going, only that we had to go in order to live. I could walk you through the entire trip, but suffice it to say it was God-infused from the moment we left Tulsa until we returned five days later. There was something about meeting God in the desert that cannot be described, at least not in any language we possess.
Many think my life now is a desert. All I have before me is daily physical deterioration. I will soon (if I’m not already) be useless to others. All I’ll be able to do is watch Netflix and drool. This is what many think is the inevitable path in front of me. And maybe it is. I am experiencing new physical limitations or pains daily. My muscles constantly twitch. It will soon be hard for me to swallow, so perhaps I will drool like that dog on Turner and Hootch. I don’t have Netflix, and don’t plan to get it—instead, I watch the squirrels and birds out my back window.
As for being useless to others, I think I’ve lived on that island for quite a while already.
But my life is far from a desert, or at least the desert most people think of—a lifeless place of dirt and rocks and a few plants you can’t touch because of their sharp quills. The desert is a magnificent landscape teeming with life. However, it takes special senses to experience this life. Senses that can adjust to the desert landscape. Eyes to see the sky reaching all the way down to the earth. Ears to hear the powerful silence. A nose to smell the freshest fresh air ever. Hands to touch pyrite and gypsum and iron ore. And a tongue to taste—oh the tastes! Rich, earthen meals made from simple ingredients that are more wonderful than any gourmet meal. This is the desert I experienced in New Mexico, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, brought home with me.
For so long, my life was noise and buildings and a lifeless sky. It took a deathnosis to get me to see that God has so much for us in the barren and broken places. In these last months I have—at last—learned to not strive for God, but rest in him. He is here with me, more real than the rocks I brought back from the desert. I now have the intimacy with my Father that I have longed for.
In The Luckiest Man, author John Paine recounts his life before and after his own ALS deathnosis. He puts in much better words than mine just how I feel about this illness.
ALS gave me a gift. It brought me to edge of myself—my abilities, my confidences, my control—then pushed me over the edge, screaming. I didn’t find the abyss over that edge, though; I found the open arms of God waiting to welcome me into his life of unconditional love, validation, comfort, and peace. In my own powerlessness, I found myself welcomed by the Power of all power.
Yes, I see ALS as a gift from God. Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—matters outside of God. He will not settle for being a part of my life—not even the biggest part. He wants all of me. He wants to take me from edifices built for the glory of man, the sounds of uncivil discourse, and the smells of those desperate to extend their lives and take me to the desert, his desert, where there is real life, true life. The only way there is by death. For me, that death includes physical death, most likely in a year or two. For all, it means a death to self. Being a Christian is not easy. God demands nothing less than everything.
So, I am saying goodbye to things that used to make me so happy. The coffee cup I mentioned at the start of this post is made of clay, not steel, but yesterday it weighed by arm and shoulder down to where it was too painful to drink from. I said goodbye to “hopping up” to go anywhere. I have no “hop” left. Now I have a lift chair—a recliner that pushes me up to a standing position so I can get up when no one is here to help.
I said goodbye to the idea of returning to New Mexico. Any trip longer than half an hour wears me out. I said goodbye to going to Ohio to see my aging parents or going to Dallas for an In N Out burger.
I’m having to say goodbye to talking for very long. About five minutes into a conversation I find myself gasping for air. (This is a blessing for those who have been subjected to me rambling endlessly about things only I care about.)
Maybe the hardest thing I’ve had to say goodbye to are my beloved books. I can no longer hold a hardcover book, and can only hold paperbacks for a short time. I’m switching to reading mostly on my Kindle. eBooks are an awesome innovation, but as you book lovers know, it ain’t the same as holding paper in your hands.
None of these goodbyes, however, hold a candle to the Hello I’ve received from God. I implore you to let go of everything and get to know God in the most intimate way possible. For most, it will not take being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s. But for everyone it will involve dying.
I want to close with a quote from St. Augustine. If you forget everything I’ve just said, fine. But hold these words close to your heart.
All those who belong to Jesus Christ are fastened with Him to the Cross. A Christian during the whole course of his life should, like Jesus, be on the Cross. It would be an act of rashness to descend therefrom, since Jesus Christ did not descend, even when the Jews offered to believe in Him. The time for driving out the nails of this Cross is only after death; there is then no time to extract the nails whilst we live; we must wait until our sacrifice is consummated. So strong sometimes are the storms of life that strength of arm is of no avail, and there is no other means to save us from shipwreck than trusting in the Cross of Jesus Christ by which we are consecrated.
• Saint Augustine of Hippo